It would be tough to argue that there have been many silver linings to the 2020 presidential election, a uniquely fraught and stress-inducing campaign that would easily have been the worst thing about 2020 were it not for the pandemic that's killed 200,000+ people in the U.S. alone, and even that gets all intertwined with the election because one half of one keeps exacerbating the other. But if you're looking for the slightest glimmer around the margins of this whole ordeal to make you feel a little bit better, try this: at least neither Donald Trump nor Joe Biden made a winky Saturday Night Live appearance this time around.
Obviously political cameos on SNL are in the eye of the beholder, and clearly there's a reason Lorne Michaels has kept inviting politician after politician back to Studio 8H, but while political cameos have had a history on SNL dating all the way back to those hallowed original Not Ready for Primetime Players, the last dozen or so years have seen candidate cameos graduate to a near-compulsory level, neutering the political comedy that the show sees as its bread and butter.
It was in the first season of Saturday Night Live that the worlds of presidential politics and late-night sketch comedy first intertwined. In the show's 17th episode, then-president Gerald Ford showed up in a winking recognition (and tacit permission) of Chevy Chase's bumbling impersonation of our 38th president. Neither Jimmy Carter nor Ronald Reagan showed up on the show, nor did any of their opponents (unless you count Jesse Jackson, who hosted after his failed bid for the Democratic nomination in 1984), but as SNL's political sketches became more of an institution, it became good optics for a President or a candidate to make an appearance, if only to show that they're a good sport. This all coincided with Dana Carvey's hugely popular George H.W. Bush impersonation. The elder Bush made a remote-video appearance in October of 1994 — after his presidency had ended — in order to take a friendly jab at Carvey, with whom he'd formed an unlikely friendship.
While Bush wasn't the sitting president at the time, his appearance did point in the direction SNL political appearances would go. As the years went on, political figures saw a lot of benefit in showing up on SNL for the publicity and to up their likeability quotient. Sometimes it worked — we forget, given Rudy Giuliani's current ghoulish public posture, that he was once a more popular figure and hosted SNL to decent acclaim in 1997 — and sometimes it didn't work. See 1996 Republican candidate Steve Forbes' appearance as host, a thing which would seem unfathomable now, which was not only unfunny but led to musical guests Rage Against the Machine protesting during their performance.
The 1996 election did lead to perhaps the most quintessential of SNL political cameos, that being Bob Dole showing up to razz Norm McDonald for his incredibly popular first-person-speaking Dole impersonation. It was this template — politician walks on, "surprises" cast member, audience whoops, Sunday morning press coverage fawns — that really established itself as the way for politicians to successfully exploit their weekly tormentors. Though it should be noted that Dole's appearance did come a couple weeks after the 1996 election.
The 2008 election is where things really cranked up. First, then-Senator Barack Obama made an appearance on the show in 2007 while he was competing for the Democratic nomination with Hillary Clinton. As Obama's magnetic persona and "star power" were huge assets to his campaign, the common wisdom was that his SNL appearance was a boon for both him and for SNL's popularity.
Things really got cranked up the following year, after John McCain named Sarah Palin as his running mate for the 2008 election. McCain, having grown popular during his 2000 primary campaign against George W. Bush, had already hosted SNL in 2002. Meanwhile, Tina Fey returned to the show and delivered the definining Palin impersonation. This led to Palin herself making a Dole-style cameo several weeks later to razz Fey and show what a good sport she was. McCain cameoed twice in 2008, once in May and once in November, mere days before the election.
Neither Obama nor Mitt Romney appeared on the show during the 2012 campaign, but things reached a new level in the 2016 campaign. First there was the hotly contested Democratic campaign that saw Hillary Clinton make a cameo on the October 3, 2015 show in a sketch opposite Kate McKinnon, and then Bernie Sanders popped up the following February. And most notoriously, Donald Trump hosted Saturday Night Live on November 7, 2015, an event that a great many believe helped normalize him as a legitimate candidate for office. The backlash was significant and became only greater in retrospect as Tump progressed further, ultimately winning the Electoral College in 2016.
Whether that backlash would have had any bearing on possible appearances by either Trump or Joe Biden in a 2020 campaign that wasn't ravaged by COVID-19 is tough to say for sure, though it's hard to imagine the SNL of 2020 making the same mistake it did in 2015. Or that Trump, who famously can't stand Alec Baldwin's merciless impersonation of him on the show, would have agreed to do it anyway. Elizabeth Warren did make a cameo appearance on March 7th, soon after the Democratic debate in which she eviscerated Mike Bloomberg, so it's certainly not a stretch to imagine a Biden walk-on either. But the pandemic made that point moot.
And not to compliment a pandemic or anything, but: good. By the time Clinton and Trump had made their headline-grabbing appearances in 2015, we'd long since passed the point where these cameos were transgressive or even all that surprising. When Saturday Night Live becomes just another perfunctory stop on the campaign trail, the tail has fully begun to wag the dog. Not only that, but in the show's historical desire to achieve some sense of balance between the two parties, it's ended up humanizing some very dubious figures. Going overboard to humanize the McCain/Palin ticket in 2008 isn't more notorious than it is today only because Obama was able to win. If he hadn't, SNL would likely still be trying to live that down, just as they'll forever be trying to live down Trump in 2015.
Better, then, to keep the major political figures out of the show entirely. They're not funny. The fact that they're not funny is no longer funny. The fact that Lorne Michaels can get the most powerful figures in America to show up at 11:30 at night on a Saturday isn't even much of a flex anymore. Politicians will chase good press wherever they can find it. It's tough to be all that impressed. So, whomever ends up going down in defeat this week (or whenever the votes get counted), let's hope 2020 buries the SNL presidential cameo along with them.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.
TOPICS: Saturday Night Live, NBC, Alec Baldwin, Chevy Chase, Dana Carvey, Donald Trump, George H.W. Bush, Gerald Ford, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, John McCain, Lorne Michaels, Sarah Palin, Tina Fey, 2020 Presidential Election